Editor’s Note: This is Kathleen’s final installment as our October Guest Blogger. In her four-part series, she’s reflected on the development and writing of her first book, We Are All Poets Here, forthcoming from VP&D House. She’s also touched upon Thomas Merton’s influences on her spiritual and writing life. We’re including this post in our Active Voice: Writers Respond series, a forum for Alaska writers to comment on current events and controversies on the national stage. ~ JP
Writing Toward a Twenty-First Century Counterculture
In the twentieth century, I’m most fascinated by the year 1968 as a time of intense paradox, unbelievable conflict, ceaseless tragedy, and widespread spiritual hunger.
Hippies heard the siren’s call and moved to communes to live less materially. Musicians wrote politically-charged lyrics and sang about how “people got to be free.” And as journalist Mark Kurlansky characterized it in his book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, everybody aspired to be a poet.
Neither bad politics nor spiritual disorder have left us.
In my judgmental younger self, I wanted to run as far away as I could from my family, and what I perceived as their ho-hum existence. For much of my adulthood (I was just a kid in 1968), I have felt hard-wired for restlessness, teetering between inner stability and inner fragmentation, between the need to conform to the status quo of the moment, and the need to rebel. That partially explains why I migrated to Alaska.
Upon entering an MFA program in 2002, I harbored no intentions to dwell in memoir, though mysteriously, I became the “reluctant memoirist.” More literary shock and surprise followed: a dead Catholic monk became an integral part of the story.
As a non-religious person who had never belonged to a church, I viewed myself as a spiritual bindlestiff, a wanderer and seeker with no particular faith identity as home, but with a lot of internal scree being kicked around.
Thomas Merton, that dead Catholic monk who entered my story, wasn’t much interested in leading a rubber-stamped existence. There had never been a monk quite like him throughout American history.
During the ten years leading up to 1968, he was quite vocal as a social critic. That contentious, polarizing time kept his pen in motion. He didn’t go around making political speeches or attending rallies, for he was required to stay put behind monastery walls. Sometimes his anti-war writings brought his religious censors down upon his bald, monastic head—many of his more controversial writings had to be circulated privately through mimeographed letters sent to his hand-picked fan club of friends and fellow intellectuals.
Taking a vow of poverty and chastity, especially in the peak of your sexuality, to join an austere religious order—the Cistercians of the Strict Observance—as the 26-year-old Merton did in December 1941 struck me as a profound countercultural choice. Women in their twenties who today enter convents are also making countercultural choices.
As a recent Columbia University graduate, and someone destined to be a career diplomat or a respected “man of letters” who perhaps might have become a regular contributor to the Paris Review or The New Yorker, Merton’ drastic personal statement to renounce the world’s madness by becoming a penniless monk astounded me.
Many of the returning American servicemen from World War II grabbed their chances to attend college under the GI bill. They filled steady jobs at IBM, in the car factories, the trades, or started their own small businesses. They bought uniform, ranch houses and family Buicks in manicured suburbs, and provided for a wife and a couple of kids. Very few of them had the time or inclination to scribble poetry and write essays.
After the huge popularity of Merton’s autobiography, he ipso facto became a kind of Catholic recruiting tool. Droves of disillusioned men flocked to monasteries and seminaries after having read his 1948 bestseller, The Seven Storey Mountain.
Merton remained a Trappist at Our Lady of the Abbey of Gethesemani for 27 years. The monk wrote prolifically, but he didn’t rant, rage, loudly preach, or incite. Deeply and thoughtfully, he offered well-considered, fact-based critiques of the Establishment and society’s systemic problems.
Merton was especially concerned with the debasement and degradation of language, how politics spewed its distortions and lies.
It was during that watershed year of countercultural reverberations, civil rights unrest, the ongoing moral uproar over Viet Nam, and with “Hey, Jude” and Otis Redding blasting on my transistor radio in Pittsburgh, that Merton, arrived in Anchorage for his 17-day sojourn.
Merton’s coming to Alaska in that beast of a year, the “year of everything horrible” as he referred to it, is a little-known, under-told story.
The publication of my book, We Are All Poets Here, coincides with the 50th anniversary of Merton’s Alaska journey, which also happens to be the 50th anniversary of his death. Alaska was one of the last places on earth he saw. Just two months later, he was dead from accidental electrocution.
As I’ve re-traced his steps in Alaska and other locations, and as his presence grew more spellbinding with every book or essay of his I read, I naturally associated the social and political concerns back then with our fears now.
To any writer or beloved reader out there who has taken time from their frazzled lives to read this blog, I pose these questions:
Given the state of America at present, what does it mean to be authentically and constructively countercultural today in the midst of our own cultural crises?
Is it countercultural to live completely off-the-grid without Internet? Or is this just an inane and meaningless gesture?
Is it countercultural to make real sacrifices and live with as little of a carbon footprint as possible? Or is this far too impractical and difficult to calculate?
Is being an artist with meager financial support as countercultural as it’s always been? Or is it just a stupid choice that unrealistic, too-lazy-to-take-a-real-job kind of people make?
As writers, what does it mean to be countercultural in this shaky here-and-now? Is it to simply stop the production of words altogether, to put away our laptops and journals, and throw up our hands, because we’re flooded with writers, poets, commentators, talking heads, and 49 Writers bloggers—and nobody’s listening anyway?
In Merton’s day, people railed against the growing militarism of the United States and our imperialist impulses. They still are. The Establishment today is about making (and laundering) money and consolidating corporate wealth. It’s about power, greed, keeping the people in the dark through calculated disruption, lies, and chaos intended to throw the electorate or possibly the whole democratic system out of whack.
Culturally, we suffer from a loss of consensus on any issue, a lack of clearly defined common, cultural values we believe are worth fighting for. It’s the Age of the Selfie and the Age of Narcissism and the Age of Blips and Bots. We engage in celebrity adoration ad nauseum. Mental and physical health problems abound due to our excessive desire for self-gratification and escape via addictive pharmaceuticals.
We are turning ourselves into entertainment zombies, far beyond what Merton could have imagined once television had become the new medium.
Thomas Merton was no perfectly pious monk who issued prescriptive advice in his writings on how one should live, or fight The Establishment. Inner neuroses and constant self-doubts plagued him, too. As a monk and priest, he was at least supposed to be spiritually wiser, I thought. But if it was answers I wanted, I knew I had come to the wrong monk.
Merton’s Alaska trip occurred a few weeks after the rioting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The land of ice and cold silence had “more square miles of solitude to last any hermit until judgement day,” as he himself noted.
Compared to the minefield of the Lower 48, Alaska appeared to be a peacelover’s paradise on the surface where one could disappear into the wilderness and forget all about wars and violence. But the young state, small in population, was fraught with its own economic and racial inequities, namely involving unfair treatment of its indigenous peoples.
The literary monk maintained a jam-packed itinerary, as if he were some important Washington, D.C. bureaucrat on tour. He met with clergy, nuns, and laypeople in such places as Dillingham, Eagle River, Cordova, Anchorage, and Yakutat and gave Days of Recollection talks.
On a political note, he recorded seeing George Wallace for President buttons in Kenai and bemoaned the increasing presence of the state’s military operations.
I’ve been a long time down in the trenches with Merton trying to write my way out.
I believe the last thing any memoir should be is self-absorbed. You don’t need to have been famous and lived a remarkable life. As Scott Russell Sanders said, a memoir can be about a life remarkably seen. My encounters with a secluded monk, countercultural, and far out of mainstream life, helped expand my consciousness in more unpredictable ways than I can do justice to here.
There’s much about the Beat Generation and the exhilarating, revolutionary spirit of the Sixties to be nostalgic about.
I imagine if Merton were alive today, he’d probably admonish writers to take our eyes off our devices and stick our neck out in the real world.
If attention spans are shattering, we need to work harder to stay fully awake to what matters most. If there is an exponential loss of truthful, public discourse, it’s up to writers to discern what is merely weaponizing propaganda, and what is honest, authentic persuasion.
Maybe it’s true and nobody is reading anymore, except in 60-second intervals. But we write anyway. Not as isolated individuals doing our own thing, satisfying our own egos and our own need for therapy, but as people who belong and care about community.
If an overall spiritual malaise gnaws and tears us apart, perhaps we need to consider a new counter-cultural path that heals and reconnects. Fifty years later, maybe we turn OFF, tune OUT, and drop IN.
Kathleen W. Tarr is the author of the forthcoming We Are All Poets Here (VP&D House), a blend of memoir and biography, a story about the struggle for spiritual clarity in confusing, chaotic times that involves Alaska, Russia, and Thomas Merton. In 2016, Kathleen was named a William Shannon Fellow by the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS) and was a Mullin Scholar at USC’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies (2011-2013). She is a contributor to the international anthology honoring Merton’s legacy and centenary, We Are Already One, (1915-2015) Thomas Merton’s Message of Hope (Fons Vitae Press). Her work has also appeared in the Sewanee Review, Cirque, Creative Nonfiction, and Tri-Quarterly, and will soon be anthologized in Merton and World Indigenous Wisdom (2018). For five years, Kathleen served as the program coordinator for the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Low-Residency MFA Program in creative writing. She lives and writes in Anchorage and occasionally teaches for 49 Writers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.